Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Saltcedar Song


Saltcedar Sam doesn’t usually say too much. It ain’t his style. But sometimes he gets real drunk and then he’s got no choice. One night Sam and I were getting drunk together at St. Elmo’s Bar in Bisbee, Arizona when those words of his started slipping out, one after the other, like they were finally sneaking out of prison after a long sentence.

Seems he went out one evening at twilight to find the saltcedar trees SINGING to themselves.

“Wow, Sam, very strange, Sam, I mean, whattaya mean?” Or something like that — I was heavy with Coors myself at that point and couldn’t hardly understand nothing except that there were some mighty strange vibrations from the barperson sitting cattycorner over there behind the vermouth bottles, doing her knitting, pretending not to listen.

Sam wiped a fleck of foam off his week-old whiskers. “Yeah, in HARMONY, you know? The big one over here, the little one over there, and a whole damn chorus in the background, just singin’ their hearts out!”

The barperson fidgeted slightly.

I ordered another beer and excused myself. “I’ll be back in a minute, Sam.”

Sam just sat there.

When I returned to my barstool, Sam was still there, staring at the ashtray, but the barperson was gone. I had completely forgotten about the saltcedar song.

The next morning I could have kicked myself in the seat of my pants for not asking more questions. What a missed opportunity! I mean, at the very least I could have asked him if the lyrics were any good.


The hills and mesas around Dos Garcias, New Mexico are covered with olive-drab creosote bushes. They stand about 4 feet tall and are uniformly-spaced about 10 feet apart. They don’t so much sing as hum. This humming keeps other plants away, including other creosote bushes, which is why they’re spaced uniformly about 10 feet apart. (Actually, the bushes aren’t spaced all that evenly. This is because there are beat frequencies in the humming vibration, and other plants can grow in the nodes where the frequencies cancel each other out.)

Creosote forms a counterpoint to the mesquite, which prefers moister ground and gives a shrill shriek during blooming season, much like the sound of a frightened honeybee caught between a window and a screen. But usually the mesquite stays pretty quiet.

The grand old cottonwoods along the river, some of which stand 100 feet high, sing with deep bass notes, like pipe organs. Most of the cottonwoods are sapped by yellow-green clots of mistletoe. Many an ancient tree is so strangled by this parasite that it simply gives up and dies. So does its mantle of mistletoe, but no matter — that’s what seeds are for. The mistletoe doesn’t really sing. Instead, it sort of clatters like gray bones rubbing together.

You can stand on Garcias Peak and insert yourself into simultaneous time and see forests of cottonwood dying to mistletoe and springing up again and great tides of saltcedar surging up from the Gulf of Mexico and clumps of tarbush marching across the hills, always in the direction of the prevailing winds. The Juniper Belt oscillates up and down the north slopes in time to the Ice Ages. And always the grass, the ever-present grass, rippling like it’s on fire in a high wind.


Saltcedar trees sing softly to Cygnus, home to Milky Way star clouds which are 10,000 light years away and beckon us on, gravitationally speaking.

The trees start singing as soon as Cygnus clears the eastern horizon, and their chorus slowly swells until Cygnus tops the sky overhead. Then their song starts to fade. By the time Cygnus finally sets, everything’s quiet except for the gurgling of the river as it eddies around the snags, and the occasional short strangled screams of rabbits being picked to pieces by Great Horned Owls.

The coyote willows, on the other hand, sing only on the night of summer solstice, when they bend their tops together and howl quietly to each other.


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